Clive Barker gives Disney a nightmarishly edgy kid flick rep

This certainly isn't your father's Disney. Horror writer Clive Barker, up to now best known for R-rated scarefests like Hellraiser and Candyman, has been signed by the family-friendly studio to create a series of films and books set in the magical,...
May 1, 2001

This certainly isn’t your father’s Disney. Horror writer Clive Barker, up to now best known for R-rated scarefests like Hellraiser and Candyman, has been signed by the family-friendly studio to create a series of films and books set in the magical, almost lyrical world of Abarat.

After having various studio heads make the trek up to his house to view a set of Abarat paintings, Barker says, ‘Eventually, it came down to three or four people who really had the size. Not just the size of funds to buy it, but also the size of organization to really exploit all the possibilities that it offered.’

Beyond the fact that ‘Disney put US$8 million on the table,’ Barker says, ‘I wanted this at Disney because they have the mechanism to make it into something extraordinary. Also, they think visually, and here I was with a large number of paintings, a lot of design work already done.’

Barker has signed to write four books published by Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins Children’s Books and says the first two will be the basis for the film. After the first four books are out, Disney will publish ancillary titles. However, Barker believes it will be several years before the movie is ready for release. For one thing, the studio hasn’t yet determined whether it will be animated or live action. The former could take up to five years to complete, the latter at least half that.

Despite his reputation for the macabre, Barker says his greatest literary influences have always been works of children’s fantasy. ‘At the heart of my childhood are series like the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, the Oz books, the Wonderland books-basically anything that took me off to another world,’ Barker explains. ‘So even though it’s very far from what I’m normally associated with, the horror stuff, I’m really getting much closer with writing [Abarat] to what I really wanted to do.’

Specifically, Barker likes his fantasy with an edge, but with a depth and texture that gives a narrative nuance seldom found in children’s literature. So when he decided to create a world of his own-one that would eventually morph into a book series-instead of starting in a literary way, Barker began in a `painterly’ way. Trained as an artist, Barker spent three years creating over 250 canvasses from which the story of Abarat emerged. Done in vivid colors, the oil paintings evoke a world specifically whimsical, subtly witty and occasionally grotesque. Many of the paintings offer layers of visual subtext through which the story of Abarat powerfully emerges.

One of the most arresting paintings is of Abarat’s villain, Christopher Carrion. In it, Carrion’s head is encased in a glass collar filled with a fluid that he, in essence, is forced to breathe. ‘Out of the back of his head and feeding into this fluid are two pipes,’ adds Barker, ‘which drain the nightmares out of his cranium and into the fluid. He’s living constantly in a soup of his own nightmares.’

Although Barker doesn’t want to give too much away about the plot, he describes the world of Abarat as ‘an archipelago of 25 islands. On 24 of those, you’re going to find a different hour of the day. On the 25th island, you’re going to find a time out of time, a place where no time exists, and all times exist. A holy moment, if you will.’

The main character in the Abarat books is 16-year-old Candy Quackenbush, who lives, as Barker says, ‘the most unpromising of lives’ in a small Minnesota burg called Chickentown. But unlike Dorothy, Alice or any of the characters from Narnia, who are essentially casual and accidental visitors to the world they come into, Candy’s life is intimately intertwined with the life of Abarat.’ However, Barker adds: ‘This isn’t one individual’s quest in a strange world to come home; this is a much larger narrative structure about the place of magic in the heart of America.’

In fact, Barker chose a teenage protagonist precisely to make a point about the loss of magic in our modern emotional lives. ‘Why are all these adults reading Harry Potter? We lack magic in our lives. We turn on the television and it fails to enchant us. We are a culture steeped in its own irony and cynicism.’

Although the book series is aimed first and foremost at kids, like Harry Potter, Barker sees Abarat appealing to readers of all ages. ‘I think one of the things we’ve seen in the Harry Potter phenomenon it that adults, teenagers and children can all enjoy the same thing-if it’s the right same thing.’ Barker says Abarat villain Carrion was designed with this kind of cross-generational appeal in mind. ‘He’s just a great villain for a kid. But for an adult, it means a whole bunch of other things. And that’s what I want to do.’

As a result, Barker says the books will take a multi-tiered marketing approach, with separate campaigns aimed at both kids and adults. He also foresees a long life for Abarat beyond films and books, including video games and a theme park attraction. His ambitions for the project to thrive in multiple incarnations were, in great part, what drew him to Disney.

Barker’s other venture into children’s literature, Thief of Always, has languished at Universal, where it is now in turn-around. Although he hopes that project eventually comes to big-screen life somewhere, his focus will remain on Abarat. However, because he is so close to the project, he says he has no plans to direct the feature himself.

‘I think my best job is to be the imaginer here and to simply continue to enrich this world. It took C. S. Lewis about 10 years to get through the seven books of the Narnia series. And of course, Baum was writing the Oz books almost until he died. I pretty much think I’m going to be in Abarat, in some form or another, for a very long time-and that’s where I want to be.’

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